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Peace meals evicted from Pioneer Hall

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The Ashland Parks and Recreation Department has notified local volunteers who serve the community Peace Meal that it can’t use Pioneer Hall starting May 1, according to meal coordinator Vanessa Houk.

Houk said she received an email from the city Tuesday that said Pioneer Hall is needed for activities that normally happen in the Ashland Community Center, which was closed this week due to severe structural problems discovered after a light fixture fell on a woman during a dance class and injured her. The woman filed a claim against the city.

Houk and her husband, Jason, work for Southern Oregon Jobs with Justice, a nonprofit organization that facilitates five community meals a week.

Ashland Parks and Recreation Director Michael Black said parks does not charge Jobs With Justice to use Pioneer Hall on Fridays, but he said the space is needed for renters who normally use the community center. He said he met with Jobs With Justice volunteers about a month ago and warned them that this might happen.

“I don’t want to make this about money, but it’s supply and demand,” Black said. “Right now, the supply is really low, and the demand is really high.”

He said the Parks Department has offered to work with the volunteers to find parks with picnic shelters to facilitate the Peace Meals.

The Peace Meals are the only food many homeless and low-income individuals get each day, Houk said.

“What I see when people walk into Pioneer Hall is that they have a huge backpack and maybe a tent strapped to their back, they take a few steps inside the door, drop their pack and their whole body is instantly visibly relaxed,” Houk said. “For some people in the community, this is the closest thing to a home they have.”

Jobs With Justice and Ashland parks have an agreement that allows the Peace Meals to take place in Pioneer Hall for just a few hours every Friday through the end of the year, as they have for the last three years, Houk said.

Once the winter shelter ends April 13, four of the five weekly Peace Meals move outside to various parks — except for Fridays.

Fridays are a constant, Houk said, which is important for people who have little consistency in their lives.

Lisa Ostos, a Peace Meal volunteer, said there’s always pushback from the community when the Peace Meals are in the parks.

She said homeless citizens are made to feel as if they’re not a part of the community and that they don’t belong to Ashland regardless of how long they may have lived in town.

“Walking around all day trying to not be seen is a heavy burden to carry around with you, on top of your 40-pound backpack,” Ostos said.

Houk said volunteers were disappointed that parks did not offer an alternative site or offer to let Jobs With Justice rent the space during those couple of hours on Fridays.

City Administrator Kelly Madding said she has not met with anyone from Jobs With Justice but is happy to discuss the issue and brainstorm ideas for other locations.

Ostos said a lot of people on the streets suffer from mental illness, and coming inside Pioneer Hall allows them to decompress.

“They come in all fired up, they get to eat, brush their teeth, maybe sleep a little bit and decompress,” Ostos said. “They leave feeling so much better.”

Houk said there are other benefits that could be lost if the meals can’t happen in Pioneer Hall, such as the Street Dog Project and the free table.

A donation box located at Jobs With Justice’s office at 330 E. Hersey St., #9, serves as a collection bin for essentials. Most days, but especially on Fridays, volunteers fill a couple of card tables in Pioneer Hall with clothes, toiletries, and gear such as sleeping bags, shoes and other essentials.

Ostos said facilitating the meals in the parks adds an additional 3 to 4 hours of work for volunteers because they have to lug all of the food, tables and other items in and out.

Houk said she’s not sure whether they could keep having the free tables in that case.

She said the Tuesday Peace Meals, facilitated by Uncle Foods Diner, will continue to operate out of First United Methodist Church, but they don’t allow dogs in the church. The Street Dog Project helps feed and care for pets brought in with their owners to the Peace Meals.

Sharon Harris, winter shelter night coordinator, said there is a large homeless population that nearly “95 percent of the community doesn’t see.”

Ostos said a wide range of individuals attend the Peace Meals, from an 87-year-old war veteran to a group of SOU students who are struggling to have enough to eat after paying for housing and school.

She said the meals will be held on the Plaza on First Fridays to raise awareness of the hunger issue in Ashland if they are pushed out of Pioneer Hall.

A woman who goes by the street name “Gummy Bear” said Pioneer Hall is a constant that allows Ashland citizens without homes to feel sheltered and safe.

“I have nowhere else to eat but here, this is the main place for any of us to eat,” she said.

The Houks and Ostos are the main daily volunteers. They said they would welcome leads about facilities that allow food serving and has kitchen sinks. To offer support or to volunteer, call Jason Houk at 541-841-8341.

Jobs With Justice created an online and paper petition to try to convince parks officials to retain the space for Friday Peace Meals, at https://bit.ly/2Vp6Lgx.

A Street Print and Parcel, 258 A St., #1, will have paper copies to sign at its location later this week, Houk said.

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

Caitlin Fowlkes / Ashland TidingsThe community peace meal feeds Ashland citizens every day of the week. Five days are facilitated by Southern Oregon Jobs with Justice from Pioneer Hall, but not for much longer.
The community peace meals are getting evicted from Pioneer Hall to make way for renters who normally use the Community Center, which is now closed indefinitely.{ }Ashland Tidings / Caitlin FowlkesThumbnail